Manchester United and Leo Messi are most popular but Germany leads the way in winning over Chinese football fans online
Red Card digital report shows Italy’s Serie A is still lagging behind while Real Madrid see biggest improvement in their popularity
Despite not touring China in the summer, Manchester United are still the most popular team in the country, according to the Red Card 2018 China Digital Football Awards.
Shanghai-based agency Mailman’s annual report, now in its seventh year, also announced the most popular Europe-based player and league across Chinese social media alongside five new awards.
The English Premier League side retained their title as the most popular club for the second year in a row, once again the most followed club on social media platforms Weibo and WeChat.
The club claims to have 107 million followers in the country, with CEO of Media Phil Lynch saying “China is one of Manchester United’s most important markets”.
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi was named the most popular player following a successful midyear relaunch of his Chinese-language social media channels, gaining over a million followers and also having the most engaged post of the year for any player or club.
Messi took the crown from last year’s winner, Cristiano Ronaldo, of Real Madrid, who finished in second place in the top five for 2017.
The other three players were Anthony Martial (3) and Paul Pogba (4), of Manchester United, and former Manchester United player Wayne Rooney (5), who rejoined Everton in the summer.
Messi, Ronaldo and Pogba visited China last summer, with Messi also announcing a theme park.
Mailman noted a more than 40 per cent increase in Europe-based footballers joining Chinese social media last year, including stars Neymar and Harry Kane, as well as the relaunched Messi channels.
The German Bundesliga was once again named the most popular league – the fourth year in a row – which was described as a “great honour for the Bundesliga” by league CEO Robert Klein.
The German top flight was ahead of the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and French Ligue 1, the same order as the past two years.
Of Europe’s big five leagues, Italy’s Serie A still has no online presence in China.
This meant Serie A failed to capitalise on two of its clubs touring Greater China last summer – no clubs from La Liga did and only one from France visited – and AC Milan (sixth from seventh), Internazionale (13th from 15th) and Juventus (10th from 14th) all seeing year-on-year rises in their standings on the clubs’ list.
The biggest change among the popularity of the clubs was Real Madrid rising to second behind Manchester United. The back-to-back winners of the Uefa Champions League were ranked sixth last year and leapt ahead of Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga side slipping from second in the 2017 rankings and top spot in 2016.
Premier League sides Arsenal and Liverpool rounded out the top five, both dropping one spot from last year, but remaining among the most popular clubs.
— Mailman (@MailmanGroup) 31 January 2018
Among the top 15 clubs, the only change among the names on the list from 2017 was Schalke 04 being replaced by Atletico Madrid.
Despite 21 new European clubs entering the Chinese digital market in 2017, taking the total number to 76, not one of them made their debut on the list of most popular clubs.
Manchester City may have dropped out of the top five, but they can take heart from a notable mention in one of the five new non-headline categories introduced for this year’s Red Card report and decided by a panel of industry experts.
City were mentioned for best online campaign, an award won by the Bundesliga, with four of the five new awards going to Germany.
Borussia Dortmund were named best live stream, while Bayern Munich took both best use of technology and best tour campaign.
Arsenal took best sponsor activation, with the other notable mentions going to German sides Schalke 04 (tour campaign) and Wolfsburg (sponsor activation), Italian giants Juventus (technology) and Spain’s Alaves (live stream).
The key takeaway from the report is that there is plenty of opportunity for growth in China. While there were over six million new social media followers in 2017, more than 50 per cent of those went to the top five clubs.
Similarly, two-thirds of Chinese football fans live in tier three cities (or below), but not one of the 14 teams that toured the country visited a third-tier city.
The report also highlighted an increase in the number of online platforms and a willingness from Chinese consumers to pay for content.
The clubs clearly think there is room to build. Several clubs opened permanent offices in China last year, including Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Wolfsburg.